When I experienced a partial solar eclipse as a child, my reaction was — as the hipsters like to say — “meh.”
When I experienced my first total solar eclipse last week, my experience was — as the weather geeks like to say — “Wow! Give me more!”
I had two regrets about last week’s eclipse: that I didn’t find myself a mountaintop somewhere, so that the 360-degree horizon “sunset” could be truly appreciated, and that I didn’t drive deeper into the path of totality for longer duration.
The fact that Mondays are a busy day around our office prevented me from doing either. I made a quick jaunt to the Dollar General parking lot in Wartburg, where totality lasted for about one minute and 13 seconds. My instant reaction? One minute and 13 seconds just weren’t enough.
This newspaper devoted much of its front page two weeks ago to cautioning Scott Countians who were looking forward to the eclipse: If you want to really experience this once-in-a-lifetime (for most of us) event, you need to drive south. Unfortunately, most folks were under the mistaken impression that since Scott County was at greater than 99 percent obscuration at the height of the eclipse, what happened here would be about all there was to say. After all, there’s little difference between 99.3 percent and 100 percent, right?
In most arenas, that is correct. But with a solar eclipse, that tiny fraction of a percent makes all the difference. At anything less than 100 percent — anything less than totality — you don’t get the Bailey’s beads, you don’t get the diamond ring, you don’t get the total darkness (even at 99 percent obscured, the sun was 10,000 times brighter at 2:32 p.m. in Huntsville than it was in Wartburg), you don’t get the black sky . . . you don’t get the true eclipse experience.
That’s what the experts all warned in advance of the eclipse. I decided to heed their warnings and head south — and what an experience it was. The difference between 99 percent obscurity and total obscurity cannot truly be described. You just have to see it for yourself. But perhaps the best way of putting it, as I saw several say, is this: When the moon completely covers the sun, at that moment when the final sliver of sun disappears, it’s like someone flips a switch.
Even at 99.5 percent obscurity, the sun is so bright that you really can’t see anything other than a bright light that hurts your eyes if you chose to look into the sky without your eclipse viewing glasses — highly unrecommended, of course. But the second total obscurity happens, the sky goes black and the darkened sun, with its solar corona creating wispy strands of light extending in all direction, becomes a truly marvelous sight to behold.
The partial eclipse was pretty cool, as well. A strange feeling settled upon the earth, with the light growing dimmer and shadows growing more lucid until the birds stopped singing, the crickets started chirping and the street lights came on. But the 73 seconds that the sun was completely hidden behind the moon was completely different. To quote yet another saying: “You just had to be there.”
That’s why, in seven years, when yet another total solar eclipse will occur just a few hours’ drive from here, I’ll be there. Because once you’ve experienced a total solar eclipse, you can truly appreciate why so many people travel so far to see something that’s only going to last a minute or two.